“Painting With Shotguns”

Inspiration comes from a lot of places.  A snatch of song on the radio, a phrase overheard on the street, the title of a book or blog. Some people get it from watching the OwlBox.  Some people get it from staring off into space and waiting for divine lightning to strike.  For me, for this story, it came from a blog.

Every week, Chuck does a column called “Painting With Shotguns“; it’s a catchall column where he talks about the miscellaneous things that have caught his attention throughout the week, and things he thinks his readers should check out.  The column itself isn’t what’s important, the title is.

See, this week, the title caught my attention in a way it never has before. I started to wonder exactly how a person would go about painting with a shotgun, and what kinds of situations might arise from it.  Me being me, I couldn’t do a story about a Gallagher-style artist who shoots paint-filled watermelons.  No, my mind went darker places, and my fingers on the keyboard followed.

This story is not lighthearted.  In fact, it’s downright disturbing.  You can find it after the jumpcut.

Remember, I warned you.

===================

Painting With Shotguns

The exhibit is not going well, and not even three glasses of Madeira helps with that.

The crowd’s thinned down to a bare handful of the ignorant nouveau riche.  They mill about, sipping their wine and talking about light and shadow and color schemes.  They know absolutely nothing about art, but they like to sound informed. The true aficionados have long since departed, disgusted with the meagre offerings I’ve set before them tonight.  I can’t say I blame them; if I wasn’t required by the gallery to be here, I’d have left already too.

Robert Jansen of the Sentinel is circling the diminished crowd with a wineglass in hand, slowly but surely making his way towards me.  I grind my back teeth.  Once upon a time when I was nobody, Robert wrote rave reviews about my work. Once upon a time, he called my style “innovatively mind-blowing”.  Since I’ve made a name for myself, he’s turned into an asshole with a grudge.  In the last two years, he’s questioned in print everything from my ability to paint to my fashion sense and table manners.  He thrives off causing me misery.  He has to love every single minute of this.

The smarmy grin as he finally approaches begs me to slap it off his face.  “Leslie,” he says, like he’s not already planning on tearing me to shreds.  He takes my hand and pretends to be a gentleman when he kisses it.  “Wonderful display, darling, as usual.  It’s a pity so many of your patrons seem to have called it an early night.”

I paste a smile on, so bright my cheeks hurt, and resist the urge to snatch my fingers out of his grip. “Hello Robert.  The crowd does seem a bit thin tonight, doesn’t it?”  I laugh, a high tinkling giggle fuelled by the wine sloshing around in my stomach.   “It’s a collection of experimental techniques.  I suppose not everyone appreciates them.”

His grin widens, canines winking at me under the fluorescents.  I imagine myself snatching one of the heavy sculptures from the nearby table and beating him with it until his head is nothing but a bloody, toothless ruin.  “What’s not to like?” he says.

I only have to pick up the paper the next morning to know what he thinks is not to like.  And it’s everything.

***

I slap colors on the canvas, smear them around.  It’s a lacklustre attempt and I know it.  But I need to paint something.  I’m not even close to destitute yet; I won’t need to resort to peanut butter and carrot sticks for a long time to come.  But I’m tired of the blank surface mocking me.  I need to do something with it.  I need to create.

When I’m finished, I hate it.  I loathe it with every fibre of my being.  It looks like a kindergarten art project done by special needs children. But fuck it, I think.  There’s a market for everything these days, even juvenile offal like what I’ve just produced.  The true patrons of the arts wouldn’t give the canvas a second look, but thankfully the true patrons are not the only customers I have these days.

One of the ignorant sheep will pay to hang it on their wall.  So I keep telling myself.

***

The show is an unmitigated disaster.  Somewhere along the way, the advertising the gallery paid for was screwed up.  The date is wrong on half the flyers around town.  The time is wrong in the newspaper ad.  It’s not even on the list of events for the gallery’s website. The radio is the only medium that gets it right, but no one listens to the radio anymore.

The paintings are awful, and I cringe every time I see someone looking at them.  I doubt I’ll get a single sale, even from the sheep.

Of course, Robert shows up, like my own personal demon manifest and determined to make my life a living hell.  I suck back my glass of wine and resign myself to entertaining him.  And entertained he is.  There’ll be another review in the paper tomorrow, telling all the world that I’ve lost my edge, I’ve lost my spark, I’ve lost my drive.   How I have become a peddler of garbage and tripe.  How mainstream and inane I’ve become.

I toss back a fresh glass of wine in one swallow and grimace.  It wouldn’t bother me half so much if it wasn’t true.

***

The canvas leans against a wall in my studio.  Weeks ago, its blank face mocked me.  Now, the riot of colors streaming across it mocks me.  Kindergarten art project.  Maybe I should have put some macramé and macaroni noodles on there.  Maybe cheap pasta and scraps of yarn would have made it sell.

Enraged beyond even a bottle of Chablis’ ability to mitigate, I snatch up my box cutter and slash the canvas into ribbons of riotous color.  One canvas doesn’t sate me, I move onto others.  Half-finished projects, fresh canvases waiting for inspiration, a print of the first painting I ever sold… They all fall under the sharp edge of the X-Acto, fluttering to the floor like the wings of butterflies.

When the rage passes, I clean up the mess I’ve made. There are pieces of canvas everywhere.  Somewhere along the way, I laid into my stack of Sentinels and shreds of newspaper litter the floor.  I scoop the nearest batch towards me with a hand.  Resting atop the pile is Robert’s byline; there’s a wide slash cutting through his picture.

I stop, stare. I hold my breath as I feel it coming.

Inspiration — so long absent from me — strikes hard and fast.

***

His eyes are wide and wild, and he keeps making muffled sounds against the gag.  There will be no smug grins today, Robert.  There will be no cunning little jabs, no backhanded compliments, and certainly no disempowering barbs. He struggles against the knots, but I was not a Girl Scout for nothing.  He won’t be wriggling himself free any time soon.

I hum to myself as I position the canvas behind him.  It takes a long time to get it exactly right, even longer to drape tarpaulins and drop clothes around the area.  I don’t know how messy this is going to be, but I’ve never been fond of too much cleanup. He continues to thrash around as I set up my project, but my knots and the sturdiness of the chair prove to be stronger than him.

I come around to the front of him and pick up the Mossberg leaning against the stool.  I sit down, hook my foot around the leg and consider him thoughtfully.  His eyes are rolling frantically and his skin is a sickly ashen color.  He shouts something at me, but all I can hear is a muffled “Nnnngh!”  It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever heard him say.

“People who can, do,” I say, and his eyes roll around to me.  “And people who can’t become nasty little cockroaches who take pleasure in tearing other people down.” I tap his forehead; he flinches back.  “Like you, Robert.  You’re jealous of everyone who creates because you can’t. And when they hit a dry spell, well… you take unholy pleasure in that.

“Do you remember when you called my work mind-blowing?  No?  That’s alright, darling,” I say, patting him on the shoulder.  “I’m going to make you a part of the centerpiece of my newest collection.  I’m going to call it ‘Painting With Shotguns’, and it will blow your mind.”

The scariest sound in the world is that of a shotgun ratcheting shells into its chamber. Robert screams, one long continuous “NNNNNGH!”  It’s music to my ears. I check the canvas one more time; the angle looks good.

“You shouldn’t have turned on me, Robert.”  I set the Mossberg against my shoulder, take a deep breath, and blow his mind right through the back of his fucking skull.

I also blow a hole right through the canvas, but that’s alright.  I can patch that up with a new lining and some repair putty.  A few careful touchups with paint, and no one will ever know the difference.

***

I spend a week going over the canvas with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass, removing stray bits of bone and strands of hair. It streaks the design, leaves tiny dots and strips of white in the rust-red.  I’m not sure I like the effect, but finally decide to leave it as is.

It looks much better when I coat it with a protective layer of Shellac and frame it with poplar.

***

The show is a blinding success.  The paintings are fairly flying off the walls; an hour to go and twelve of the fifteen pieces have little SOLD placards hanging under them.  I watch as a hostess walks away from a patron; she moves to one of the three unpurchased paintings and sets another placard under it.

A minor bidding war has erupted over “Painting With Shotguns”, the centerpiece of the collection. “The colors,” they’re gushing. “The textures, the boldness. I must have it.” They’re salivating, frothing, falling all over themselves to win it.  I pause at the edge of the crowd long enough to hear the latest offer.  It’s a five-digit figure, and not a low one.  I smile and move away.

Julie Ryder of the Herald is circling through the crowd with a wineglass in hand, slowly but surely making her way towards me.  I track her progress, and make a note to keep an eye on the papers tomorrow.  She’s always been a more moderate voice than Robert was, is usually more forgiving in her reviews and critiques, but you never know when they’ll turn on you.

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